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Storyhouse: How an innovative library has energized the life of a cultural hub

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[Editor’s note: Simon Erridge, Director at Bennetts Associates Architects, writes about his work on Storyhouse, the building which was officially opened by the Queen and the Duchess of Sussex in June 2018, and featured in RIBA’s list of the best buildings of 2018]

Storyhouse is Chester’s cultural hub, a theatre, cinema and café/bar which hosts professional and community activities, but it is also the main city library, with books spread throughout its spaces. The venue is housed in a converted art-deco cinema, it is open 7 days/week until 11pm, the longest opening hours of any library in the UK.

We designed Storyhouse for client Cheshire West and Chester Council, and the plan to include a library in the brief started as an opportunistic piece of cross-funding. However the advantage was soon seized to free the library from its conventional civic building and to surround it with the creativity and buzz of an arts centre.

Storyhouse the organisation (previously Chester Performs) is both a theatre producer and combined arts organisation and we worked closely with them, along with the city's library service, to realise the vision. They drew on their experience as a site-specific producer to challenge the accepted norms on how conventional arts centres, and libraries, should operate.

They were quickly able to see the opportunities offered by the partnership, and we were all energised by meeting Dutch library guru Erik Boekesteijn who came with strategic input to the kinds of character spaces that could be created in the building.

Together we designed an innovative solution which would see the library become totally integrated into the building’s operation and planning, and more than that, it would become the most vital ingredient in the cultural mix, bringing people in throughout the day and creating an atmosphere as rich with socialising and study, as it is with storytelling. From the start there were to be no internal doors, no way to ‘close’ the library, and the performance activity in the building - with theatre and cinema finishing late - guaranteed long hours of operation. Its omni-presence meant that the word ‘Library’ never actually had to appear on the signage.

Photo of the modern extension to the Art Deco cinema at Storyhouse
Storyhouse. Photo credit: Peter Cook

Books line the walls and the shelves are used to create spaces which are consciously more domestic than corporate. There are no areas of dense book-stacks, but Storyhouse still manages to accommodate over 30,000 volumes. With wooden shelving, simple chalkboard signs and no conventional decimal classification, the books are arranged to appear more like an inviting second-hand bookshop than a conventional library and give character to every space.

The subject areas of the library are instinctively located to suit the type of space they occupy, so cookery and food? In the café. Romance? In the glamorous art-deco foyer. Children’s books? Beside the storytelling area. Art and Architecture?... Next to the café/bar. Helpful staff are ever-present to guide the user as well as being able to sell tickets to events (there is no fixed box-office). Face-to-face customer service is critical and was thought-through from early on in the project.

Photo of the restored art deco space.
Restored art deco space. Photo credit: Peter Cook

The building attracts all-day visitors of all ages and backgrounds, and helps create the no-barriers, no-obligation space where transactions are neither required nor expected. 150 community groups regularly use the space with everything from coding workshops and ‘digital buddies’ to board games meet-ups and book groups. Laptop-using students and small business owners regularly mix with young families and older people.

Storyhouse has become the all-day ‘hang-out’ of choice for over a million visitors since opening 12 months ago. Driving the incredible success of the theatre and cinema has been the powerful and constant presence of the library throughout the building. The success of Storyhouse makes the case for putting libraries front and centre as part of integrated cultural hubs, where the books literally become the ‘glue’ holding the whole building together.

Royal visit

[text added by Sheila Bennet, who attended the official opening accompanying Michael Ellis, DCMS Libraries minister.]

Photo of the Queen unveiling a plaque in Storyhouse. There are lots of school children in the background.
The Queen unveils a plaque in Storyhouse. Photo credit: Ant Clausen

Storyhouse was officially opened by the Her Majesty the Queen on 14 June, and this opening was attended by the Libraries Minister, Michael Ellis. His verdict? “I was very impressed to see how the public library runs as a golden thread through the whole building, sitting so effectively alongside the theatre and cinema. Storyhouse acts not only as an anchor to wider regeneration plans, but also champions communities by acting as a vibrant hub and programming an impressive range of activities for hard to reach groups.

I saw during my visit how Storyhouse is playing its part in contributing to a sense of wellbeing and pride in the City. Storyhouse is a true success story and has become a community focal point in the relatively short amount of time it has been open. It is also an excellent example of how investment in libraries can achieve important social impacts for the people it serves.”

Photo of the Queen and Duchess of Sussex watching storytime in the reading den
The Queen and Duchess of Sussex watching storytime in the reading den. Photo credit: Ant Clausen


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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  1. Comment by Guy Hodgson posted on

    Great theatre, but the library!!! A sharply reduced number of books put into cramped conditions with poor signage. The non-fiction section has become the wall dressing for the cafe and I no longer go there because I’m too embarrassed to disturb diners in an attempt to reach the shelves.